Favorite Baroque Composers

I’d sound like a chicken if I were to ramble on about my number-one favorite composer. Truth be told and without exaggeration, I spent close to a decade enveloped in the works of the bewigged cantor. I heard it all (or as much that has been discovered and recorded), from cantatas to organ works to keyboard works to lute suites. He was my first introduction to the world of Baroque music, and it was like pulling teeth or lancing eyes to get me to out of my comfort zone with him, and discover other composers by thinking outside the Bach’s.

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And I’m very glad that other composers from the Baroque era have been in my brain and ears for the past thirteen, perhaps fourteen years. I’m not certain if I’m going to ramble on and list random composers and add a few links, or create separate blocks of text for those composers–bear with me. Now, while I love that talented organist and master of fugue and counterpoint, his music is so difficult to play and sometimes listen to–he seems to adhere to the rules and guidelines and form rather than reaching other means of expression (think of Vivaldi or Lully, for example, in terms of lyrical freedom). There’s nothing wrong with rigid counterpoint and strict canon but sometimes it leaves the ear and mind wanting more.

Without further ado, here is a wall of text regarding other Baroque composers I highly recommend you take a listen to; at one point or another, I’ve heard their music and it has struck me. I used to think our wine-loving, tobacco-smoking cembalist was king of the Baroque, but now the fog has been lifted and I see that all Baroque is valid, beautiful, moving, and exquisite.

I enjoy the music (either full works, or other small pieces I’ve stumbled across over the years) of, quite honestly, most composers listed in this massive and helpful Wikipedia article. Now, the Baroque era was approximately (give or take?) 150 years, from 1600-1750, with Monteverdi writing the first great examples of Baroque writing, although I always found him to be the cross-over between the Renaissance and Baroque era. Oddly enough at times I also find early Baroque music more enjoyable than the rigidness of Bach and Telemann and Handel. Now, some composers in my great list I’ve only heard a few pieces by, but you get the idea.

Claudio Monteveri, Henry Purcell, Marin Marais, Antonio Lucio Vivaldi, George Frederick Handel, Jan-Dismas Zelenka, Carl Abel, Ludwig Krebs, Tobias Krebs, Barbara Strozzi, Élisabeth Jacquet de La Guerre, Jean-Baptiste Lully, Sebastian Duron, Alessandro Scarlatti, Francesco Geminiani, Jean Cambefort, Michel Lambert, Richard De Lalande, Francois Couperin, Louis Couperin, William Byrd, Gerolamo Frescobaldi, George Philip Telemann, Silvius Leopold Weiss, Domenico Scarlatti, Charles Avison, John Jenkins, Jean-Philippe Rameau, Giuseppe dall’Abaco, Dieterich Buxtehude, Johan Helmich Roman, Johann David Heinichen, Wilhelmine v. Bayreuth, Heinrich Schütz, Johann Adams Reincken, Samuel Scheidt, Johann Hermann Schein, Andrea Zani, Nicolaus Bruhns, Georg Böhm, Alessandro and Benedetto Marcello, Thomaso Albinoni, Francesco Cavalli, Johann Paul von Westhoff, Francesco Durante, Vincent Lübeck, Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber, Arcangelo Corelli, Giovanni Battiasta Pergolesi, Johann Joseph Fux, Johann Pachelbel, Johann Kuhnau, and finally perhaps Johann Georg Pisendel. I cannot and do not wish to count how many names I have copied and pasted into this wall of text, but there you have it!

Now, onto the sharing of more music in as much order as I can manage.

Claudio Monteverdi could be seen as a founder of Baroque music, having created and released the first Baroque opera L’Orfeo in 1603. His giant work Vespers was published (or written?) in 1610, and it is on a grand scale of instrumentation, expressive writing, and overall creation that one cannot help but be stunned when listening to it. His vocal writing style is quite unique and powerful, and the various moods presented in this sacred work are multiple. The Lament of the Nymph too is expressive and genius; the descending bass subject in the nymph’s aria has been used by many composers. Monteverdi wrote many vocal works, ranging from motets to madrigals and operas, to admit I am not as familiar with him as I should be. His contemporaries included Carlo Gesualdo who achieved his fame due to his harmonic reach in music, as well as the famous murder of his wife and her lover. Orlando de Lassus…my apologies–I’d thought him to be Italian, but he lived in Germany. He did write music in Latin, Italian, German, and French however.

Henry Purcell was an English composer and keyboardist. I think his best-known vocal works for choir and ensemble are King Aurthur and Dido and Anaeas. From the former, this chilling aria known as the ‘Cold Song’ employs the use of text-painting, which is where the music reflects a given subject–in this case, the freezing cold. The harmonies rise chromatically, with the violins scratching and shivering, as does the voice of the bass. Anyone who has experienced winter can attest to the truth of this music; the ultimate irony is that Purcell himself died a cold death, having been locked from his house one winter night.

He wrote sacred music, instrumental music, keyboard music, music for viols, sonatas in four parts, and secular vocal music as well. <<< This is seriously the best recording/performance of Dido which I’ve ever heard! Then again, all of Voices of Music has gems to offer.

John Jenkins I believe was contemporary to Purcell; he too wrote exquisite music for viols. John Dowland has previously been one of the more famous English composers, along with William Byrd.

In Italy, aside from Monteverdi–the giant of vocal music–the middle of that century would see the rise of great instrumentalists such as Vivaldi (my favorite concerto by him!), Albinoni, and the brothers Marcello, Alessandro and Benedetto (one was a lawyer who wrote music on the side, and the other was a musician in need of a lawyer). Sebastian Bach arranged the music of Vivaldi, Albinoni, and both Marcello brothers, either for organ or harpsichord. Another great writer was Corelli as well.

May I pause for a moment and write music more about Vivaldi? After Bach, I think he is my favorite composer from the Era. When I think about my history with Baroque music, I know that Bach’s organ work (thank you, E. Power Biggs!) were deeply moving to me, but the g minor concerto, RV 156 was one of the first concerti to be stuck in my head after hearing it on the radio sporadically.

The D Major Gloria, RV 589 will forever be one of my all-time favorite vocal works. Vivaldi’s exploration of harmony in all movements is refreshing, but sometimes simplicity is the best–the aria Domine Deus, Agnus Dei is harrowing in its depiction of sorrow, with the lone soprano amid the choir, and not to mention the descending theme found in the opening cello.

Not only is his vocal music spectacular but his instrumental music rivals Bach, Handel, and Telemann. People who think Vivaldi is boring for ‘rewriting the same concerto 500 times’ are right to have that opinion but their opinion is wrong. In someone of Vivaldi’s position, you had to be prolific and churn out music left and right. After all, teaching at the orphanage for girls gave him the opportunity to write for many instruments. This concerto for two oboes is nice; the most Bach ever wrote for two oboes may have been a few arias! There is also the collection of concerti known as La Stravaganza which feature many different skills required to perform. Also, Vivaldi was a violinist, so it would be correct to assume that many of his concerti and other works wold feature violin-writing.

This aria from ‘Andromeda Liberata’ is really a gem of expression, as is this aria which first introduced me to the wonderful voice of Mr. Orlinski. Vivaldi’s mastery is in melody with harmonies around it; this is evident even in his instrumental music. I recently heard this opera within the past couple weeks and was very impressed. Also, quite wonderful and regretful to neglect is Laudate Pueri Dominum, RV 600 whose music is akin to a storm in certain moments.

If I may interrupt myself for a moment to suggest the following idea: programmatic and absolute music are terms which originated in the Baroque era, but I feel are unnecessary. In short, programmatic music refers to a force of nature, or presentation of human emotion, and these aspects are captured via music. But isn’t this idea vague? Vivaldi’s Summer Concerto in G Minor depicts, at its end, a massive storm, but I could argue that almost any minor-key movement from his concerti could likewise fit the description. A furious but elegant storm!

Andreas Scholl has always captured my ears with his voice too, but this small example is only a taste of both Scholl and Vivaldi, who pair excellently in his sacred music. Of the Red Priest of Venice too much can be said; I have to continue to other composers!

One other important composer from Italy I must mention is Girolamo Frescoabli, an excellent keyboardist of great repute. Among his best-known works is Fiori Musicali, a sacred work for organ. Bach most likely modeled his Germa Organ Mass after this piece, which uses ancient motifs as the cantus firmus for sections o the opus. He also wrote vocal music too but his keyboard and organ pieces (particularly the toccatas) remain a staple among the repertoire of keyboard keyboardists.

A moment of importance should be specified here. The interpretation of Baroque keyboard was specified, to my knowledge, of two keyboardists: Couperin and Frescobaldi. Treatises are a written explanation on how a piece of music can be interpreted, and both aforementioned composers write examples as to finger-exercises, method of playing, rhythmic choices, etc. Baroque music is quite sparse and bare in terms of directions, phrasing, dynamics–all things which make music music.

To change regions completely, we must now look at France, where the royal court of King Louis was graced by many of those gifted in the art of music. Elisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre was a stunning musician; she played the harpsichord and composed opera, which was an uncommon thing for a woman to have the privilege of doing in those days. Her chamber music is imaginative and inspiring, and full of French flair, but it is her keyboard music which must have stunned the courts. A cantata too was written by her, as well as another violin sonata.

One giant family in this era of composition was a dynasty belonging to the lineage of Couperin. The great Francois (quite literally called ‘Couperin le Grand) was a master of the keyboard; his instrumental music is satisfying too. In the company of Lully we have Saint-Colombe as well, who was a gambist like Marais.

But one single piece (comprised of many pieces) has captured my ears, heart, and mind for the past few years since I discovered it: a massive ballet dedicated to King Louis XIV, who danced in it as a child. This was an important piece of art (I say ‘art’ because not only is the music important, but dancing was culturally an important aspect of France at the time). The only reconstructed and recorded version of this phenomenon contains everything I love: visual spectacles, elegant dancing and choreography, aspects of Western tales and mythology mixed with ‘modern’ real life, and most importantly, absolutely gorgeous and expressive music.

To some, the following video may seem obscene and ridiculous and outright bizarre, and it’s all right to have such an opinion. I came, stayed, and was transfixed by the music. The album release by Ensemble Correspondances is on par with the video, but neither compares to anything else I’ve ever heard. No single composer participated in the composition of the music, but it is speculated that Lully, Cambefort, Lambert, and Cavalli all contributed their mastery. Granted, this performance is also a reconstruction and recreation by Mr. Dauce himself…For your enjoyment, some Francesco Cavalli.

Another composer of note is Luigi Rossi whose music seems akin to Montevrdi.

The film about gambist Marin Marais is excellent too, and its soundtrack is even more brilliant. No, I haven’t watched the movie. Marias was a good composer of great caliber, with the gamba as his chosen instrument. The piece Les Voix Humaines is particularly expressive and beautiful, but profound too; and this wonderful collaboration of two gambas presents the music of Marias, Couperin, and Lebegue. My favorite is the interpretation of La Folia at the close–an exquisite representation of Baroque imagination.

Contemporary with Lully and Marais was Richard de Lalande, whose music I should explore more of. Quickly, as an edit– here is some splendid ensemble music. And not to mention another soundtrack, this one to the film Le Roi Danse, which mostly features music of Lully.

A miracle was Lully, born from common birth in Italy. He served in the court of King Louis XIV for many years until dying due to gangrene and vanity. He was, in addition to a composer, quite a fantastic dancer and choreographer, by all accounts. He wrote vocal and instrumental works; take this music from Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme–opening with a grand, dark yet majestic French overture. The full suite is available here too. I don’t believe that Lully was a keyboardist but perhaps one who played the violin? His dramatic vocal works included both sacred and secular music.

Traveling into Germany now, where things get more complicated. In both the Southern and Northern regions, organists had their own methods of composition and performance. Stylus fantsticus was a technique of composition in the Baroque era, most commonly employed by keyboardists but the method was possible in chamber music. Both Froberger and Merulo are credited as being founding-fathers of the method. Frescobaldi too used this method of writing. This album gives examples of the forms and their composers.

Nicolaus Bruhns gives a good example of organ writing, and both he and Georg Böhm had great influence on Johann Sebastian. One of my previous posts goes into small detail concerning the partitas of Böhm. But not his cantatas, not yet, as I have to explore more of them.

Also, Georg wrote a lovely variation on Vater, unser im Himmelreich which has been spinning inside my head for many days. He too was a master of the great form of prelude and fugue for organ.

Another keyboardist of inspiration was Vincent Lübeck, whose skill developed the doppel-pedal method (playing with both feet in counterpoint, as can be seen here.) Another excellent example of early Baroque writing is seen here, in Ich Ruf zu Dir.

But out of all composers who I’ve mentioned, the ones who are extremely important, I feel, are Dietrich Buxtehude and Johann Pachelbel. Buxtehude was an organist who lived two hundred miles away from Bach, but still the young man managed to hear the master’s works in person in evening-music concerts. Buxtehude was a virtuoso, like so many listed here; an expert, I feel, in the sombre movements like a ciacona or the passacaglia. I’m not going to link my own performance because it leaves much to be desired.

He also wrote many sonatas for multiple instruments; but I wonder if Bach ever heard them? His sacred cantatas too are lovely hear, although his treatment of a cantata is wildly different than what we would hear from Bach.

Pachelbel may have met Bach, but this is purely speculation. His organ works influenced him greatly, and he taught one of Bach’s older brothers with whom Bach lived after his parents left him orphaned. On an unpopular opinion, his famous, over-played d major canon is a good piece of music; it’s just not heard on period instruments enough! But that piece over a repeating bass isn’t as good as his f minor ciacona, in my opinion.

Another important piece is his Hexachordum Apollinis which is a giant set of variations. Although he too wrote vocal music; his cantatas are on the same caliber of writing as Buxtehude. Pleasant but serious music, giving Bach the inspiration for his massive chorale cantatas, no doubt–a cantata where the main hymn melody is presented in the form a fantasia for the opening movement. But Pachelbel wrote other such holy music as well.

einrich Ignaz Franz von Biber was a talented and visionary composer, who rivaled Bach in his solo violin writing. His sacred violin sonatas can be seen as programmatic, but this isn’t always the case. His holy f minor requiem is on par with the previous one I’d linked by Marcello, and it’s one of the first pieces which introduced me to him. Honestly I have yet to explore more of this fantastic composer.

While few composers could compete with Bach in the mastery of counterpoint, one composer moved a step higher an competed with him on the instrument which counterpoint is most difficult: the lute. Silvius Leopold Weiss was the most extraordinary lutenist of his day; Bach is reported to have played (I think?) the lute, maybe as a past-time hobby, but no one else besides him would be primed to challenge Weiss.

Counterpoint on the lute is quite difficult; see all those strings? Typically lute music was melody and accompaniment, as Lukas Henning demonstrates in this beautiful gem of an album. Melodies and variations could be performed, yes, but fantasias and fugues? And overtures? Nobody could compete with Weiss except for Bach–not in a malicious way, but for the sake of music. It is rumored that Bach wrote the suites BWV 997, 996, 998, and 1006a originally for a lautenwerk, a kind of harpsichord which sounded very much like a lute. When Weiss heard Bach practicing these pieces without seeing the instrument, he was shocked. Weiss is known to have composed other works for other instruments, but I’m not sure much music survives.

Aside from Bach, who worked for the church during the duration of his life, two composers exceeded his overall output: Christoph Graupner and George Philip Telemann. Between the two of them, collectively they’d write over 6,000 works (and Bach has under 2,000…that we know of). Graupner passed away in 1760, merely ten years after Bach and one year after Handel, but to be honest I’ve not explored his music much. But I should, obviously.

Telemann I know more about than Graupner. Telemann was a child prodigy, and although his father urged him to go into law, he refused to do this. His chamber music is splendid, as is his vocal music but some, for whatever reason, find Telemann…boring. Perhaps I am biased but no Baroque music is boring to me.

Telemann knew Bach and Handel, being the godfather of one of the sons of Bach, but with Handel who lived in England he exchanged many letters. More on Telemann’s music, though–he was highly inventive and prolific, writing music for odd instruments, such as double-bass or only solo recorder. Surely these twelve solo fantasies will be uplifting to you! He also wrote a concerto imitating the noises of frogs; such creations were not unheard of– Biber too wrote such programmatic music.

Another very important German composer was Johann Joseph Fux, who compiled a very important text in terms of music theory which was mind-boggling at the time (I think?): Gradus ad Parnassum. Fux was a composer and theorist, as was Johann Mattheson. You see, music in those days was considered a science (or some folks thought that it should be a science, like arithimatic and nature) and it helped if such a form of creativity could be described and presented in an understandable manner. Rules and guidelines would be implemented in order to make music good and acceptable (I think that might be the proper word). I, of course, dislike rules and guidelines, and it’s obvious from listening to my music that I have not read the great treatise by Fux.

It goes against my beliefs to think that composers didn’t write for the means of expression and communication; how could it be otherwise? Of course one can write within proper guidelines, and use the tools of expression to make your music expressive. Perhaps then this is my dilemma; I don’t see how beautiful music can be borne of anything other than the composer’s personal life, mood, or thoughts.

While not born in Germany, Czech composer Jan-Dismas Zelenka was the top composer in Germany who rivaled Bach at counterpoint; Bach himself is said to have admired his music deeply–and if Bach liked, you know they had to be good! I’m not certain if Zelenka was trying to imitate Bach; composers wrote what they were familiar with, after all, as is such the nature of things. This expressive and hurried music is beautiful, for example. Not much is known of Zelenka as a person; few or no portraits exist and he had no family.

This joyful music cannot compete with Bach, I think; but so too does this instrumental music express much. But I find music in the minor key to be more lovely, heartfelt, and achieving more expressive possibilities than major. Zelenka was prolific and productive, and that’s a fact!

I have spent, at this point, many days in the writing of this massive post–it’s taken me maybe a week to write this much! Not every day but sporadically. I’m not sure that I mentioned every composer in my writing here, so my apologies. I’m grateful to you all for reading my ramblings, and I appreciate you for taking the time to read all of this! No one but an insane person could write this much about Baroque music in their free time, but here I am. I commend you all if you’ve made it here, to the end. Thank you all for your support! I hope you enjoy more writings to come.

Your support would be appreciated! I love Baroque music–writing it and playing it and rambling about it. Consider donating to keep both myself and my creativity functioning, and I will create to all of our content.

Until later, best wishes to you all!

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